Chapter One: Tourian and Flurry
Tourian's eyes flickered with a brief light before he "woke" from standby. Shifting his shoulders in a mannerism that he had adopted from watching his human creator, he glanced up and around at the cubicle the scientist had been assigned to. The man himself lay slumped and asleep at a computer.
"You shut down without putting him to bed," growled a low voice at his elbow.
He nearly jumped, recognizing the voice. "Shut up, Flurry. Just let him sleep. He likes it better there, anyway."
He spoke in hushed, angry tone, trying not to wake the man up.
The female he spoke to looked affronted, crossing her arms in disgust. "That isn't --" She suddenly took his arm and hauled him out into the hallway. "That isn't the point, Tourian! You're so -- irresponsible." She looked back into the room they had just exited. "He's tired, isn't he?"
Tourian looked back too, frowning. "He says he's just down on his luck."
"You know better." Concern touched her eyes as she glanced back at him. "The Company's treated him bad. He doesn't deserve the crap they're dishing out."
He jutted a thumb down the hall, and she nodded. In silence they slipped down the once-new, once-clean hallway, lined with faded doors badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. A wolfish figure was crouched at the outer door, and he rumbled a metallic greeting as the two approached. Flurry motioned the big dog to silence, and Tourian ruffled his ears.
"Where's Jackdaw?" he muttered suddenly, as Flurry opened the door, allowing a rush of cool air to blow in.
"He's probably at the perimeter. I told him to go on outer patrol tonight."
"Ayrmin didn't notice." Or didn't care. Tourian could never tell.
Flurry made a dismissive gesture. "When does that dog notice anything?"
Tourian didn't answer, feeling sharp, orange eyes at his back as they stepped out into the night. Flurry knew better than to say things like that. A flea couldn't pass by Ayrmin without the dog noticing. The enhanced senses of a robot made sure of that. He set his jaw. The Third Discovery. Was that what they'd called it? Robots, computers, and the occasional -- well, all manner of vehicular transportation roamed the streets, alleys, and dirt roads of the city -- but there were only a few advanced vehicles left on the road. Even the scientist had only a -- '96? -- Ford truck. The rich people had the 2000 models.
"Tourian -- do you suppose we could help him?"
He blinked. "Help --? He wouldn't take that from us."
She glared up at him. "I didn't say we had to tell him. What is it he's been working on this time?"
"Time." Tourian grinned darkly at her. "The Company wants a time machine. They're idiots. The only time one of those worked, we lost three other robots and the two scientists they were trying to protect."
He saw her suppress a shudder. "Lost them. That's what the newsread said. I was there, so were you. The Company's bad news, Tourian."
The Company -- also known as the World Robotics and Technology Administration. Tourian ground his teeth. Bad news did not begin to describe the sprawling network that had pretty much the entire planet in an iron grip. The Company had a monopoly on anything remotely -- remotely -- technological, down to the kitchen sink. Every scientist in the world had flocked to its doorstep as it gained power -- including Dr. Kreyin. Of course, they treated their scientists well enough -- until something they didn't like happened.
Like the Third Discovery.
Kreyin had been digging around an old site in the Ruins, an old city of twenty-first and twenty-second centuries, and he found some files -- computer files. He got access to them, naturally -- he'd been a hacker in his youth -- and the story of an age, a robotic age, unfolded before him. Tourian had downloaded the files for himself, going through a stage of curiosity much like a child of four or five. Flurry knew about them. He, Flurry, Ayrmin, and Jackdaw were based on designs from those files. He smiled thinly, wondering if the scientist could have possibly guessed what his discovery would lead to.
The Company pounced on it, of course. They promoted him three times as he began building the robots -- based on those fool schematics. Marketed worldwide -- every home had to have one. They hadn't been seen in two centuries, at least. Until --
"Tourian, you're thinking again."
Flurry's voice jolted every line of thought out of place, and he frowned down at her. "Why'd he make you so short?" he demanded suddenly.
"What?" Her voice hovered barely below a shriek. "Of all the -- Tourian, you say the stupidest things!"
He winced. "Don't wake him up."
She stalked ahead of him in a huff, refusing to say another word. He couldn't make sense of her sometimes. Kreyin was a very good programmer. Other than their appearance, no one would guess they weren't human. Every thought process, every gesture smacked of humanity. Maybe it came with the territory. He looked at her silently.
Dark auburn hair flowed to her waist, covering a leather belt that held her harmonic wave-knife. The belt was a gift from Kreyin, as was the knife. She wore it all the time, contrasting oddly with her gleaming armor and dark eyes. Funny, that. Other than the eyes, Flurry had been made in the image of Kreyin's daughter, dead in a car accident years before. He himself -- well, he didn't really know where his design had come from. Unruly black hair was covered by a flaring helmet of white -- along with gold accents. His armor was colored the same way, and Flurry's was pale grey, marked with blue.
She turned around and walked back to him, eyes searching. "Has he told you anything about this project?"
His mouth twisted angrily. "I had to break into his files just to find out what he's supposed to be doing. When he found out, he locked me out of everything else."
She tapped her foot on the ground impatiently. "That's beside the point, Tourian. Can't you get past him?"
Tourian snorted. "He designed the lockout specifically for the two of us. That's the only reason I don't have everything I need to know."
She looked crestfallen. "Oh."
He put his hand on her shoulder comfortingly. "He doesn't want our help on this one, Flurry -- he doesn't even want us involved."
Her face turned toward him, hurt. "He's always trusted us before. What's different now?"
Tourian did not reply, even though a response rose to mind. The scientists -- the robots -- ripped apart like paper. The very fabric of reality that made them up -- disintegrated, right before everyone's eyes. Right before the head of the Company's eyes. And what had she said? Try to get it right, next time. If Dr. Kreyin had had anything to say about it, there wouldn't have been a "next time."
But he hadn't had anything to say about it. And he'd been fired earlier because of the disaster with his robots -- his robots. The Company had put the blame squarely on his shoulders. Tourian closed his eyes -- determined to remember, not to suppress what he hated thinking about.
"Do you remember Zephyr?" he asked softly, and Flurry began to play absently with a lock of her hair, another human mannerism, obviously not wanting to.
"Yeah," she said finally. "She was the best." Flurry dropped her hair and turned a glance around the dim, deserted parking lot -- or what used to be a parking lot. Zephyr had been like a sister. Of course, I remember. "Why'd you have to bring her up, anyway?" she demanded harshly, then angrily at her harshness.
Tourian winced. Zephyr had been one of the first -- one of the first to be built, one of the first to go crazy. Kreyin woke one morning to find a wall smashed down, littering rubble over the bodies of two of his lab workers and one of a robot. And one after another the others went crazy, too. Kreyin went a week without sleep trying to find out what went wrong -- a flaw in programming, a virus, something. Flurry and Tourian, among the last and built by Kreyin himself, were locked in stasis for three months, along with Jackdaw, Ayrmin, and Tremor, running tests, trying to figure a solution. They were safe now, and almost the only ones left.
Robots were illegal, despite that the Company refused to change its name.
Kreyin's failure landed him in the garbage pile, safely away from the public eye, and working on whatever projects the Company thought too risky for their successful scientists.
He was expendable, and that was all there was to it. Especially since he was supposed to be dead. Two weeks after the disaster had been contained, the Company leaked a report to the media -- and by morning, the entire world knew of the death of Dr. Janus Kreyin. And they had laughed in his face when he begged to do something useful -- to carry on his own work. Laughed! Said they'd have him killed first.
"I don't know why," he said quietly to Flurry, who was glaring at him expectantly. "I'm sorry."
She shrugged abruptly, turning her back. "It'll be light soon. We'd better go back in."
The sound of a door slamming violently against a wall spun them both to face the building. Kreyin himself burst outside, trailed by a worried Ayrmin.
"Tourian! Flurry! I need your help inside -- I think I've got something that'll get us out of this rut!"
Flurry winced. "Dr. Kreyin -- it's late -- early. Go back to bed -- this can wait --"
"Don't mother me, Flurry," the middle-aged man snapped sharply, then seemed taken aback by his own tone. "This can't wait. I've got a breakthrough -- a brainstorm! Hurry!"
Ayrmin rumbled anxiously at him as he ran back through the door and barked sharply at a tree on the far end of the lot. An annoyed-sounding birdcry answered him.
Tourian shook his head, and Flurry growled something furious, stalking toward the open door. Tourian thought it was, "What -- was the man born in a barn?"